The below article talks about air quality, the factors that affect air quality, the air quality scale, if air quality needs to be considered before any outdoor activity, along with some frequently asked questions about outdoor air quality.
Do I need to check the outdoor air quality before I exercise outdoors?
Yes, it is extremely important to always check the outdoor air quality before any probable prolonged outdoor activity. This ensures that we make informed decisions about limiting our exposure to toxic airborne pollutants and chemicals that could have long-lasting implications on our physical and mental health. Air quality must always be monitored especially when it comes to vulnerable groups of individuals such as senior citizens, individuals with cardiovascular diseases, immunity compromised individuals, kids, individuals diagnosed with respiratory issues, etc. as even short term exposure to certain contaminants could exacerbate their health conditions and trigger new symptoms.
Air Quality Index (AQI)
An AQI is used by global and national state actors to communicate to the public about the levels of air quality in the country and the world. As AQI levels increase, health risks increase and different countries have different interpretations of the same index, therefore the levels of measures taken across countries will differ. Countries can have their own indices, scales, and national air quality standards. Therefore, governmental monitoring stations may show different data in comparison to other global sources.
Analysis of AQI is done through a collection of a large amount of data collected over large periods of time with the help of various devices, sensors, and monitors that measure the levels of different pollutants and toxic airborne particular matter. These values are studied to identify air pollution patterns and create projections that help citizens worldwide to make decisions about their everyday activities. Various studies have been conducted globally to study the correlation between different levels of air pollution and the health impacts it creates, and they have proven time and time again that the AQI is an important measure and needs to be strictly adhered to in order to reduce the long-term health effects on individuals.
The objectives and goals of having an AQI are as follows:
- It aims to compare air quality conditions across different locations around the world.
- It helps to identify inefficient standards and frameworks; and aims to put pressure on global actors to take necessary actions to fix these gaps.
- It helps to identify patterns of change and distribution of air quality and toxic air pollutants
- It informs global citizens on air quality conditions and what protective measures need to be taken to safeguard themselves and their families.
There is a large number of air pollutants, and varying concentrations of these pollutants cause different effects across various populations. The US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) identifies 5 major pollutants (US EPA, n.d.). They are as follows:
- Ground-level ozone
- Particulate matter such as PM2.5 and PM10
- Carbon monoxide (CO)
- Sulfur dioxide (SO2)
- Nitrogen dioxide (NO2)
Each of these pollutants has a globally set standard so that countries may know at what levels these pollutants will get toxic, and thus be able to take public health measures.
The air quality scale
It is crucial to check your local air quality before you make any decisions on conducting any form of outdoor activities. Poorly made decisions can have lasting impacts on children and adults due to prolonged exposure to airborne pollutants, especially for previously vulnerable populations like senior citizens, individuals with compromised immunity, those diagnosed with chronic health conditions, etc. Below is a table of the air quality standards followed in the US. Though formulated by the US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), it is mostly followed by countries everywhere and any interpretations made only vary very little in comparison to this table.
Source: AirNow, n.d.
In general, air quality is measured on a numbered scale from 0 to 500, and they are divided into different color-coded categories based on the severity of the levels of air quality. Below are the commonly followed categories (BS, n.d.):
- 0 – 50 (Good / Minimal Impact) – The air quality is considered to be within healthy limits and poses little to no risk to the citizens in the area.
- 51 – 100 (Satisfactory / Moderate Impact) – Air quality is acceptable, but can pose a risk. The air quality can cause minor difficulties in breathing to vulnerable populations amongst the citizens in the area.
- 101 – 200 (Moderately Polluted/ Unhealthy) – Air quality is not under acceptable levels and can cause difficulties in citizens in the area, especially amongst individuals with respiratory illnesses or other diseases.
- 201 – 300 (Poor/ Very Unhealthy) – Air quality levels are high and can cause distress in citizens with prolonged exposure to these levels. It is a health risk to vulnerable populations and they need to be on alert.
- 301 – 400 (Very Poor/ Hazardous) – Poor air quality levels and pronounced effects on vulnerable populations, and respiratory illnesses to other citizens on prolonged exposure.
- 401 – 500 (Severe) – Toxic levels of air pollution and need to be considered as a health warning for all with a special focus on vulnerable populations. Everyone will be affected and can have long-term impacts even with short-term exposure.
What are you breathing in?
Mold thrives and grows in damp environments leading to infestations that could have dire effects on health. 80% of Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) is contributed to mold infestations, the most common form being the black mold (RTK, n.d.).
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs):
Various old buildings have been found to use unsafe paint and asbestos, while this is being rectified in the larger common areas; they are usually ignored in the lesser-visited spaces like a basement. Therefore, particles like lead dust, radon, other carcinogens, etc. would be present along with other particles originating from old upholstery, adhesives, paints, carpeting, varnishes, old furniture, pesticides, cleaning products, gym machines, gardening equipment, etc.
Fiberglass insulation is commonly used and is one of the major contributors to poor indoor air quality. Since fiberglass is present all across ceilings and walls, there is very little effort made to reduce the impact caused by breathing in small glass particles. It is also used in the manufacture of piping, sports equipment, fire protection equipment, drum sets, etc. So, breathing in fiberglass doesn’t necessarily originate from insulation, it could be a breakdown of particles from items stored in a basement.
The dust, mites, pollen, vermin and its droppings, mold spores, bacteria build-ups, mildew particles, etc. are some particles that can trigger allergic reactions. If there is equipment like washing machines and dryers, chances are lint is being inhaled as well. Not cleaning equipment could trigger infestations that spread rapidly across stored items in a basement, leading to increased breakdowns of toxic particles.
Industrial and Vehicular Emissions:
Studies have repeatedly found out that vehicular exhaust fumes have caused varying degrees of respiratory difficulties amongst kids and adults. A study conducted in Taiwan amongst 32,134 schoolchildren found that their increased exposure to air pollutants during traffic hours has increased their risk of developing allergic rhinitis (UoB, 2006). The study observed that these children were exposed to multiple pollutants in the city’s center including nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone, etc.
The study showed that the official diagnosis of allergic rhinitis increased by 10% for every 10 ppb (parts per billion) increase in levels of nitrogen oxides (UoB, 2006). The chances of respiratory difficulties amongst children increased if they had a familial history of the same issues.
Fumes from paints, pesticides, cleaning products, bleach, varnishes, gas, solvents, etc. emanate strong chemical fumes. These fumes could cause inflammation to the outer skin as well as to lung tissue and can contribute to poisoning or cancer due to long-term exposure. A radioactive chemical that is often present in basements is radon. Radon has been found to be the 2nd largest contributor to lung cancer in the US, with an average of 21,000 deaths every year (EPA, n.d.). Since radon is odorless and colorless, poisoning from radon is usually identified quite late.
Allergic reactions to pets can be due to the body’s response to the protein that is found in an animals’ skin cells, saliva, feces, urine, etc. Most usually, the allergic reaction is triggered by inhalation of the pet’s dead skin (dander) and has been mostly associated with exposure to cats and dogs (Mayo Clinic, n.d.). Pet allergies can appear as symptoms of asthma, wheezing, breathlessness, etc. The most common way to avoid pet allergies would be to avoid pets, however, in situations that are not possible, various other solutions such as the below ones can be implemented.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): Should I check the AQI before I exercise outdoors?
Should I wear a mask when I exercise outdoors?
It is recommended to wear a face mask at all times when you’re outdoors, especially with the COVID-19 Pandemic, and with the new Omicron strains that threaten our healths again, it is best to wear a mask. However, it is understandable that it can get suffocating to wear heavy-duty masks while exercising, and therefore there are certain leeways made when it comes to exercising in masks, specifically that people tend to prefer surgical masks while they exercise over the ones with more efficient filters, as it allows for breathability.
Where can I get reliable air quality readings from?
Air quality readings are available from several global and national actors. Private companies such as BreezoMeter and AccuWeather provide reliable air quality information with specific interpretations depending on your location. These can be accessed through their apps or website which continuously monitor air quality to ensure reliable and effective results. These platforms are also capable of providing information about pollen concentrations and specific pollutant concentrations that could be damaging to vulnerable groups of individuals. There are several countries that provide air quality readings as well, but it is always best to validate these readings with more unbiased sources, so as to ensure accuracy and proper interpretations.
Other FAQs about Air Quality that you may be interested in.
AirNow. (n.d.). Air Quality Index (AQI) Basics. Viewed on 12-16-2021. https://www.airnow.gov/aqi/aqi-basics/
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (n.d.). Health Risk of Radon. United States EPA. Viewed on 12-16-2021. https://www.epa.gov/radon/health-risk-radon
Hadley S. (2020, December 21). Air Pollution is causing Permanent Damage to eye health. Viewed on 12-16-2021. Earth.org. https://earth.org/air-pollution-causing-damage-to-eye-health/
Mayo Clinic. (n.d.). Pet allergy. Overview. Viewed on 12-16-2021. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pet-allergy/symptoms-causes/syc-20352192
RTK Environmental Group (RTK). (n.d.). Beware of Basement Air. Viewed on 12-16-2021. https://rtkenvironmental.com/healthy-home/beware-of-basement-air/
University of Birmingham (UoB). (2006, February 22). Traffic Fumes Linked to Childhood Allergies. Viewed on 12-16-2021. https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/news/latest/2006/02/22feb-allergies.aspx